NEW YORK – Sabbath eve: Prof. Elie Wiesel is waiting for me in his office. The meeting with him, as always, is warm and friendly.
What began as my briefing him on the world-wide work of Limmud FSU (former Soviet Union), turned into a fascinating exchange that I could not have imagined.
I had come to brief him on Limmud FSU events during the past year and especially the biggest-ever event in Moscow, with over 1,200 participants in late April, and another in New Jersey in March, with the participation of some 800 young Russian-speaking Jews, many of them graduates of the Birthright and Masa programs. I also wanted to tell him about the next event, which is to take place, for the second time, in Chisinau (Kishinev), Moldova, between 23-25 May, with the participation of some 400 people.
My acquaintance with Elie Wiesel goes back to the 1980s when I was secretary-general of the Israel Public Council for Soviet Jewry. His contribution to the fight for freedom of Soviet Jewry was unprecedented and his book, Jews of Silence: A Personal Report on Soviet Jewry, was for us, activists on behalf of the Jews incarcerated behind the Iron Curtain, holy writ.
Wiesel has been aware of Limmud FSU since it was established nearly eight years ago. When in New York, I take the opportunity, together with his friend Rabbi Menachem Hacohen, vice-chair and rabbi of the Conference for Jewish Material Claims against Germany and one-time chief rabbi of Romania, where Elie was born, of bringing him up to date on our activities.
Wiesel is known for his liberal outlook and deep knowledge of Judaism and Jewish culture. There are two topics on which he is not prepared to compromise: remembrance of the Holocaust, and the State of Israel. His latest book, The Talmudic Soul, recently published in Hebrew with a foreword by Prof. David Weiss Halivni, is a deep and contemplative work of Jewish philosophy.
In the eyes of Wiesel, the link between Russian-speaking Jews who were deprived of the possibility of Jewish studies in the USSR for so many years, and the wealth to be found in Judaism is of singular importance. In this, he believes, lies the inherent value of Limmud FSU.
I was very excited before this meeting.
It was not to be just a regular briefing as I wanted to discuss with one of the great philosophers of this generation and one of the spiritual inspirations behind Limmud FSU another subject which related to him personally and directly.
Thus, the second part of our conversation dwelt on the expulsion of the Jews of the town of Sighet, Elie Wiesel’s birth place, to Auschwitz. (Sighet today is Sighetu Marmatiei, in the province of Maramures, Romania, in the Carpathian Mountains of Transylvania.) His parents, ultra-Orthodox Jews, were Sarah Feig and Shlomo Wiesel. Wiesel’s mother, Sarah, was the daughter of Dodye Feig, a celebrated Vizhnitz Hassid and farmer from a nearby village.
As we spoke Elie’s face changed perceptibly; he carries with him a heavy burden. He does not forget for one moment that he is himself a “brand plucked from the flames.” In his childhood he studied holy texts and hassidism, and at the same time, acquired a general education and learned Hebrew.
Following the Nazi occupation, the family was deported to Auschwitz on 18 May, 1944. Wiesel had three siblings – older sisters Hilda and Beatrice, and younger sister Tzipora. Hilda and Beatrice survived and were reunited with Elie at a French orphanage after the war. Tzipora and his mother Sarah were murdered in Auschwitz, and he and his father were transferred to the Buna labor camp. With the advance of the Red Army, the two of them were forced on a death march to the Buchenwald concentration camp. His father, Shlomo, died in Buchenwald and Wiesel himself managed to survive the three months in the camp until it was liberated by US forces on April 11, 1945.
I brought Elie up to date on the initiative of the Claims Conference to construct a museum in the basement of his family home in Sighet which will memorialize the Jews of the area murdered in the Holocaust. I have visited the site several times and I was able to brief him on the preparations for the museum opening on May 18 and the associated Limmud conference which will take place there to mark 70 years from the deportation to Auschwitz. The museum is supported by the government of Romania, the governor of Maramures Province, the town of Sighet, the Claims Conference and Limmud FSU, and the opening will be attended by Holocaust survivors from all over the world, including Ben Helfgott, from Britain, a vice president of the Claims Conference, a holocaust survivor and an Olympic athlete.
Elie has agreed to take part in a video interview during the museum opening ceremony with Steve Linde, editor of The Jerusalem Post, and to talk about his experiences. While I am telling Elie about the preparations for the museum opening, he recalled that one of the presenters at Limmud in New Jersey had been Lihi Lapid, wife of Yair Lapid, the current Finance Minister and the son of the late Tommy Lapid and the eminent author Shulamit Lapid.
Wiesel asked me, “Did you know that Shulamit Lapid’s father was the journalist David Giladi, who was one of the founders of the Ma’ariv newspaper? He was a close friend of mine and in my archives at Boston University, I have an exchange of letters with him covering many years. I intend to send them to Yair shortly. It would be worthwhile asking Dr Yoel Rappel, director of the archives, if he could prepare a selection of these letters for display in the museum. ” Elie told me that Giladi had also been born in Transylvania. He had grown up in circumstances very similar to those of Wiesel himself. While Elie had become a correspondent for the newspaper Yediot Aharonot in Paris, Giladi worked for the competing Ma’ariv. Giladi, who had been a journalist, editor and translator from Hungarian, Yiddish, Czech and German, died at the age of 100 on May 18, 2008, the anniversary of the expulsion of the Jews of Sighet. His daughter, Shulamit, wrote about her father and her own childhood in Tel Aviv in her book, Ve’ulai lo hayu (“And Maybe it Didn’t Happen,”) published in 2011. I remembered that Yair had written about his strong relationship with his grandfather, but I had not been aware of the connection with Elie Wiesel.
Elie never forgets his origins nor his desire to preserve the rich Jewish culture he knew as a child. As he sees it, the work of Limmud FSU among young Russian speakers is among the most meaningful contributions to that cause.
For me, this conversation was a worthy and memorable introduction to the onset of Shabbat.
The writer is founder and chair of Limmud FSU’s Executive Committee.